Lucia Gannon's Reviews > The Stranger's Child

The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst
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's review
Sep 16, 2012

really liked it

The Stranger's Child tracks the fortunes of the Sawle and Valance families through 3 generations, from 1913 to 2009. Best described as a saga, it begins as a historical novel and ends as contemporary fiction.
One memorable weekend in 1913, a young poet, Cecil Valance visits his friend, George Sawle at the Sawle family home of “Two Acres”, where George lives with his mother, his 16 year old sister, Daphne and their 25, or is it 35, servants.
Cecil writes a poem for Daphne, or is it George, or perhaps neither one? In any event Cecil gains fame as a poet and becomes the object of much speculation and investigation for the next 100yrs.

Throughout this 100 years we are taken on a journey through the roaring 20s, swinging 60s and naughty 90s. Homosexual love, marriage, two world wars, fading fortunes, growing old, alcoholism, memories, secrets and lies appear and disappear leaving the reader lost in a tumultous world of characters and events. What is the truth of anyone's life? How are we to know if what is remembered is real or is anything real once it's in the past? As Daphne says, “.....memories are just memories of memories, It is diamond rare to remember anything fresh.”

The book is divided into 5 parts, each part portraying a different era, which bears no relationship to the title of the part. I think this is in keeping with the style of the book. Nothing is laid bare by the author. The reader must pay close attention to detail in order to place events and characters in time but it is worth while paying attention to how he cleverly and unobtrusively he allows this to happen.
The language is succinct, descriptive and evocative, with echos of F.Scott Fitzgerald.
“...Paul saw it would live undistubed here, the house, condemmed by it's own urge for privacy” or ..”the upstairs windows seemed to ponder blankly on the reflections of the clouds”
The plot is reminiscent of Ian McEwan's “Atonememt” and A.S. Byatt's “Posession” but there, the similarities end. Hollinghurst's characters do not travel a linear line from beginning to end and neither do we, the readers.
If you are a reader who is ill at ease unless you are let into the whole secret and want to understand everthing when you complete your closing sentence this book is not for you. This story is not linear, complete or easy to put out of your head once read.. Rather it is messy, relies on people's memories-and we all know how reliable they are- is subject to interpretation, perspective, missing evidence, societal attitudes and a myriad of other influences which deem it almost impossible to define anything as true or real or significant. Life is like that, but a writer takes on additional responsibilities when writing about lives.
“.....but he saw more clearly than ever that the writer of a life didn't only write about the past, and that the secrets he dealt in might have all sorts of consequences in other lives in years to come.”

Houses, books and artefacts are a recurrent theme in the book with a lot of the book centred in the Victorian, Corley Court and the poem which caused all the controversy being called after “Two Acres”.
Victorian houses are torn down, demolished or defiled by those who do not appreciate them. I think this is symbolic of the changes in society.
Victorain architecture is “boxed in” by the next generation just like feelings and sexuality are boxed in, to fit with expected societal norms.

I dived straight into this book, only coming up for air when I finished section one. I was tossed about by waves of anger, frustration, disappointment, when some of my favourite characters disappeared and new ones emerged from a past I had not been privy to. People did not behave as I expected them to. My clever deductions were not confirmed or dismissed.
On my second reading I learned to go with the flow, lay aside all entitlements to a beginning, middle and end.
This is not Jane Austen, where the closing sentence brings a sigh of relief that, at least in some worlds, all is well. Neither is it Ian McIwan with a shocking twist that would catch me unawares, or AS Byatt, whose diligence, persistence and attention to detail in "Posession" enables the piecing together of the jigsaw pieces of the past to give a complete and satisfactory picture.
In contrast, this novel still teases me with it's unanswered questions, imperfect characters, indefinite truths and secrets. I suspect I have not read it for the last time. After all, I am still asking “who is the stranger's child?” All suggestions welcome!

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